While the British government struggles to find the best path to Brexit, the position of other countries in the EU will be key to determining the fate of whatever path is chosen. An exclusive focus on the negotiations in Brussels between the UK government and the Commission is in danger of missing important pressures that are playing behind the scenes.
Researchers at the Sussex European Institute conducted studies of elites in four states – Germany, France, Ireland and Poland – during the summer of 2017 to try to gauge the responses to the first phase of Brexit. Based on a series of interviews and discussions with members of parliament, and with staff at think tanks in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, London and Dublin, as well documentary sources, the reaction we found was a strong and shared emphasis on EU unity among the EU27.
In Germany it was clear that politics trumps economics. There was a strong consensus that the main priority of the German government in the Brexit negotiations is (and should be) to keep a united front of the EU27, and to prevent any further disintegration of the EU, whatever Germany’s narrow economic interests. German elites also recognised the central role Germany plays in European diplomacy around the Brexit talks. The government was seen to be making a conscious effort to listen to the priorities of smaller member states to ensure that they are incorporated into the EU negotiating position amidst the dense network of bilateral exchanges, on the level of governments and parliaments, between Germany and other EU members. Berlin was seen as the critical diplomatic hub for coordinating and maintaining a strong and united line of the EU27. But while Berlin was boosted by Brexit, there was a general sense of frustration with London and the British approach to ‘Brexit’ and the loss of political goodwill towards the UK in Germany.
For Ireland, the EU is more important than the UK, but there was a strong desire for a continued close relationship with the UK as a major economic partner and a close ally in the European Council. However, at this early stage, there was a strong consensus among those we spoke to that Ireland will not negotiate separately with the UK. Ireland clearly has the most to lose from a hard Brexit, but there was an affirmation that Ireland will not tolerate a ‘have your cake and eat it’ deal for Britain.
Ireland was seen as having had strong initial diplomatic success in ensuring that avoiding a hard border with Northern Ireland is one of the three priorities of the first phase of Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Commission. It was clear that, for the most part, there was early optimism that the EU is looking after Ireland, and that Ireland’s interests are best protected as part of ‘Team EU’. The UK, on the other hand was seen from Dublin as having sent mixed signals and there was disappointment at the referendum result and frustration at the hand being played by the British government.
The French responses to Brexit confirmed that absolute priority was being given to maintaining the cohesion of the EU27 with French national interest seen as being inseparable from the fate of the EU. There has been planning that has identified specific French interests – in policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries – that will play a critical role in future negotiations, and which will be divisive domestically as well as within the EU27. It is expected that various economic actors will intervene more once negotiations develop further. But it was clear that, in the interim, these issues have been put on hold in the interests of EU cohesion.
For beneath the show of confidence, lies a deep but unvoiced fear that British diplomats might just be able to make a success of Brexit: on no account should the UK be allowed to strike a better deal outside the EU than as a member of the club. On bilateral issues there was emphatic agreement that Brexit would have little impact on Franco-British relations: in defence policy in particular, France is keen to maintain strong bilateral links. Above all, there was frustration at the failure of British politicians to come up with a coherent set of proposals.
Accusations in the British media of the French response to Brexit being very punitive, were openly rebuffed. But there was strong opposition to the idea of the UK ‘cherry-picking’, and the French will naturally try to take advantage of opportunities that arise in areas such as financial services. France’s position with regard to the future development of the EU will most likely be framed as an endorsement of the idea of differentiated integration, pushing for further integration of the core member states around a revived Franco-German partnership, rather than as a looser type of arrangement drifting towards a ‘Europe à la carte’.
Brexit means that Poland is losing a key EU ally. There was a sense that both countries shared a similar vision of an expanded single market combined with a reluctance to allow the EU more economic policy powers, as well as sharing a strongly Atlanticist worldview. This common thinking has been reinforced by the ruling Law and Justice Party’s view of the UK as its most important strategic partner within the EU and Britain’s Conservative government, which had a similar anti-federalist approach towards EU integration, as its most significant ally in advancing this project.
While the Polish government has seen the Brexit vote as a vindication of its critique of the EU political elite, the dominant view within the party remains that it is in Poland’s interests to remain in the EU and try to reform it from within. Poland’s main opposition parties, the centrist Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ grouping, on the other hand argue that, that there is little appetite for amending the EU treaties. In the immediate period of Brexit, Poland has specific interests: maintaining trade with the UK, fears about the budgetary implications of losing the UK (as Poland is currently the greatest beneficiary of EU regional funds), and concerns about the future of the substantial Polish community currently in the UK.
Whatever its aspirations to lead broader debates on the EU’s future, Warsaw has little room for manoeuvre, making it much trickier for it to play the role of spokesman for an amicable Brexit settlement. Since the referendum there have already been signs of a pivot in Poland’s international relations towards closer co-operation with Berlin.
What cuts across the four cases are two themes. The strongest is that Germany, France, Ireland and Poland, at this stage of the process, are keen to pursue a united EU27 position and not to break ranks in pursuit of particular national interests. But is also clear that Germany’s role in the process and in the EU has become even more central, and that Germany itself is clear on its brief to lead.
There are significant differences, as we might expect, where relations with the UK are stronger. For Poland and Ireland it is clear that there is the sense of losing an important partner. But whether the states have stronger or weaker ties to the UK there appears to be some consternation over the way the UK has approached the first phase of Brexit.
By Paul Taggart Professor of Politics and Director of the Sussex European Institute at the University of Sussex, Kai Oppermann Reader of Politics at the University of Sussex, Neil Dooley Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex, Sue Collard Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex, Adrian Treacher Lecturer in European Studies at the University of Sussex, & Aleks Szczerbiak Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. You can read the full paper here.